Nuclear Subs: Environmental Hazard

The CANADIAN government's decision to drop its planned purchase of nuclear submarines followed, by only weeks, the sixth sinking of a nuclear-powered submarine during the past 26 years. While Canadian peace activists celebrate the good news, we should continue the work for which our recent campaign has prepared us: publicizing the threatening dimension of the naval arms race, the constant risk of environmental disaster. The Soviet sub's sinking once again raises questions about the lethal mix of nuclear power and nuclear weapons at sea.

By David Kraft | 1989-06-01 12:00:00

When an uncontrolled, accidental fire broke out on the Soviet Mike-class submarine, the crew and captain faced a deadly choice. They could continue fighting the fire at the risk that it would spread, breaching the integrity of the two nuclear reactors and incinerating the two nuclear weapons on board. Or they could shut down the reactor and sink the sub, creating another kind of nuclear disaster. The final decision came so fast that 42 of 69 crew members eventually lost their lives.

Soviet, Norwegian and American officials quickly reassured the public. Soviet foreign Minister Dmitri T. Yazov insisted that "radioactive contamination of the environment is ruled out." A spokesperson for the International Atomic Energy Commission declared that "If an accident had to happen, a nuclear reactor could not have ended up in a more safe place than the ice sea."

Quickly into the Food Chain

There is no justification for this chorus of official reassurances. Two nuclear reactors containing (at least) several hundred kilograms of highly radioactive fuel, and two nuclear warheads containing several kilograms of lethal plutonium now sit on the bottom on the ocean. Whatever the condition of the submarine hull or the reactors today, these materials will inevitably, sooner or later, be released into the surrounding marine environment.

The international London Dumping Convention of 1983 outlaws disposal of even low and intermediate levels of radioactive waste at sea, because of their serious impact on marine ecology and fisheries. High level radioactive wastes in large quantities, such as those contained in nuclear submarine reactors, are much more hazardous.

The ocean in the Norwegian and Greenland Sea region is characterized by strong currents and mixing. Rapid water exchange means that any radioactive leaks from the sub wreck are likely to find their way to the surface and into the food chain quite rapidly. This could have disastrous consequences for the already precarious fishery of the region.

Soviet officials have announced their intention to salvage the sub. This should be done as soon as possible. In the meantime the USSR should release all information about the accident, the submarine and its two reactors.

Ban Nuclear Propulsion

Nuclear reactors were developed by the United States Navy for use in submarines to provide long distance, high speed underwater travel, to allow extended covert operation along an adversary's coast. Today there are 544 nuclear reactors used for naval propulsion; more than there are used for generating electrical power.

Nuclear reactors at sea pose a special danger. They operate with minimal containment compared to land varieties. They are in boats. They can sink. A submarine depends on its reactor to maintain sophisticated life support systems. Reactors, therefore, are often kept operational in unsafe conditions. Land based reactors would be shut down in similar circumstances.

The growth in the number of naval nuclear reactors has produced a major environmental threat. At the same time, it has also been the precondition for the escalation of the naval arms race. Reactors have made it possible for five countries to operate mobile silos in the form of ballistic missile submarines. Development of the nuclear-powered attack submarine has allowed nuclear navies to spread to every corner of the planet.

A ban on naval nuclear propulsion would serve two objectives. It would eliminate the multiple environmental threats posed by reactors at sea. And it would choke off the naval arms race, which is perhaps the most unpredictable and deadly dimension of the superpowers' military confrontation.

A Pattern of Accidents

The risk of nuclear accidents increases when reactors and nuclear weapons are aboard the same vessels and where maritime forces operate on the verge of a military confrontation. Every day the nuclear navies wage an invisible war on the high seas, signalling aggressive intentions to the other side, searching for weaknesses, and demonstrating a readiness to fight. "We rub up against the Soviets every single day," according to former U.S. Secretary of Navy John Lehman.

Sinkings, collisions, radioactive discharge, and other major accidents, are a permanent feature of the naval arms race. In a forthcoming study, William Arkin, Director of the National Security Program at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and Joshua Handler, Greenpeace Researcher, document hundreds of such accidents at sea.

Risk of a major accident is compounded by a shroud of secrecy. In the United States, more than any other branch of the armed forces, the navy exercises great autonomy from civilian authority in its own country and abroad. For example, U.S. warships will neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons on board. Thus during 1987 when nuclear-armed warships visited Canadian harbors 64 times, there was never an official acknowledgment of the presence of nuclear weapons. Environmental assessment of potential risks was ruled out in advance.

Countries owning nuclear navies face problems with storage of spent fuel and disposal of old radioactive reactors and even radioactive hulls. Currently twelve nuclear submarines are awaiting disposal in Bremerton, Washington alone. In his "Survey of Radioactivity in Sediments in the Vicinity of Naval Establishments in the U.K." Dr. Paul Johnston of the University of London, recorded levels of radioactivity around the naval bases of Faslane and Holy Loch, Scotland four to nine times higher than previously published official figures. "Although the high readings we have found are still officially termed 'acceptable,' any increase of radioactivity involves some risk to health, and high levels of leukemia deaths have been found around Holy Loch and the refit yards around Rosyth and Devonport," said Colin Hines of Greenpeace.

Nuclear Allergy

Nuclear allergy - opposition to nuclear armed and nuclear powered warships visits - is spreading rapidly. Beginning in New Zealand, cities in Australia, Japan, the South Pacific, Western Europe, and now the Soviet Union, are mobilizing to block nuclear ships' entry into populated harbors. Recently Vancouver City Council sent a resolution to the federal government asking it to enforce the city's status as a nuclear weapons free zone and to keep nuclear warships out of its harbor.

Internationally, the time is right to begin negotiations aimed at banning naval nuclear weapons and nuclear propulsion. Having cancelled its planned nuclear submarine program, Canada could add weight to this process. Prime Minister Mulroney has an opportunity to turn a fiscal, political, military, and environmental liability into an international initiative.

David Kraft is Disarmament Coordinator of Greenpeace.
Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1989

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1989, page 18. Some rights reserved.

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